This is the fourth in a series of excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. During the first year of their marriage, Jerome and Betsy traveled to Niagara Falls, which was still a little-visited wilderness. They are believed to be only the second honeymooning couple to visit the falls. In this scene, they are camping out for the first time. Note that Elisa was Jerome’s pet name for Betsy.
Toward evening, they halted just before a wooden bridge that spanned a stream cutting across their route. Betsy noticed a rank smell in the air. Jerome gestured to the right, where an opening in the trees looked like the beginning of a trail. “I am going to explore that path and search for a clearing where we can camp.” He dismounted, tied his horse to a sapling beside the road, and headed into the trees.
Betsy pressed her lips together and peered after him until a bend in the trail took him from sight. Her horse moved restlessly, so Betsy patted it and murmured, “Whoa.”
As the minutes passed, she stared down the road, first in one direction and then the other. The smell was making her ill, and being alone made her uneasy. The undergrowth beneath the trees was so thick that it was impossible to tell if anything was hiding there.
When Jerome returned, he said, “There is a clearing. I think someone might have started to build a house here, but they did not progress very far.”
He helped Betsy dismount from her sidesaddle, and she walked a ways to stretch her sore legs. As she glanced down to check where she was stepping, she saw a long cylindrical object ringed with dark jagged bands lying across the road. Following it with her eyes, she realized it was a snake that had been run over by a wheeled cart; the body was smashed near the head and the dirt showed traces of blood. Betsy stepped back, even though she knew it was dead, and then looked for the snake’s tail. It had rattles.
“Jerome, we cannot stay here. There are rattlesnakes.”
He came up beside her to stare at it. “Zut! So that is the source of the stink.” Putting an arm around her, he squeezed her shoulders. “The serpent is dead and can do us no harm.”
“There may be others. Robert once found a whole nest of copperheads at Springfield.”
Jerome looked up at the sky. The sun had sunk behind the treetops, and shadow completely covered the road. “It is too late to go farther. If this region is infested with snakes, the danger will exist wherever we go. We should set up our camp now while there is still light.”
Betsy wanted to argue with him, but he grabbed their horses’ reins and began leading them down the trail he had discovered. Tears pricked Betsy’s eyes as she lifted her skirts and followed him. The trail was barely six inches wide. Ferns, small shrubs, and saplings encroached upon it from either side, and she disliked having them brush against her as she passed.
After a few minutes, they emerged into a small clearing. Betsy halted and looked around. The rocky stream ran along one edge of an open area dotted with stumps. Someone had chopped down several trees and dragged them to the far side of the clearing, which was higher than the ground beside the stream. Betsy could see that the axeman had cleaned the logs by stripping their branches. As she wondered why he had abandoned the site so soon after starting construction, a sense of foreboding settled on her.
Near the center of the clearing was a circle of rocks surrounding a shallow fire pit. Glancing into the woods, Betsy saw several mossy outcroppings of stone. The stench of dead snake was no longer noticeable; instead, she could smell leaf mold and resin.
As Betsy stood pensively, trying to imagine sleeping out of doors, Jerome went to his bags and found his hatchet. Then he removed his coat and began to chop some of the discarded branches for firewood. He told Betsy to gather kindling and tinder. When she started toward the edge of the clearing to look for dried grasses and bits of peeled bark, a movement caught her eye.
She halted and found herself facing a fox that stood just inside the first line of trees. The animal had frozen with its head slightly lowered. A tree blocked part of its body and ferns hid its feet, but Betsy could see its red fur, upright ears, and pointed snout.
“Jerome!” she said in a loud whisper. She turned her head to catch his attention.
He was in the midst of swinging his hatchet. After finishing the stroke, he wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. “What?”
Betsy looked back toward the woods, but the fox had gone. “Oh,” she said in disappointment. “It left.”
“Elisa, what are you talking about?” After leaning his hatchet against a log, he walked toward her.
“I saw a fox over there.”
Jerome bent to kiss her. “A pity I did not have my pistols to hand. I could have gotten you a fur collar.”
“I am glad you did not. It was beautiful, and foxes do not hurt people, do they?”
“No.” Jerome returned to his chopping. As Betsy gathered up twigs and leaves for tinder, she wished she had brought a basket on their journey. Then her mind returned to the fox. She had rarely been so close to a wild creature. The experience had unnerved her at first, but then she had felt a kinship with the animal, which after all was only trying to make its way in the world.
Dusk fell before they finished making camp, and mosquitoes began to bite. Jerome built a large campfire, and its smoke helped drive away the troublesome insects. Then he went down to the stream to fetch water.
As Betsy unpacked the bread and cheese they brought for their supper, she heard a loud half-snarling cry from somewhere in the woods, followed by a terrible, almost human scream. Too frightened to move, she stared into the darkness and waited. After a few moments, she heard something heavy moving in the brush, and she started to tremble. “Jerome?” she called, but her voice was too weak to carry. Betsy pressed both hands against her stomach and swallowed hard.